Singing Together Alone

Another Friday night approaches and with it the happy prospect of another bass rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah with the Self Isolation Choir. Alongside, I am glad to say, other members of our eager troupe of second bass chappies joining in on the chat and no doubt singing with their usual gusto and aplomb (despite the slanderous picture Jon has painted of us – I don’t know what those naughty boys get up to at his end of the row). Even the satisfaction of discovering last week, one bar that I have always sung wrong, through four performances!

Many of you will no doubt have joined at least one virtual choir and experienced that strange sensation of performing live alongside a large group of fellow singers – in my case banned to my office shed in the garden – without being able to hear any of the other participants. Of course, as a bass this is not unfamiliar territory, given how often we have been stuck at the back during concerts unable to listen to any of the other parts or to one another! Even though spending time online in conference calls is a fairly regular part of my job, with microphones muted this is very different – a solo one-to-one session shared with a hundred people. 

And thinking – oh how much do I miss our wonderful altos!

Despite the keenly felt absence of familiar faces, Peter’s warm-ups and the feeling of communal satisfaction when – yes even second basses – we do nail it, there are some advantages to this singing together at home lark…

Not rushing to rehearsals directly from London feeling stressed and dehydrated from playing sardines on the tube. Not discovering I’ve forgotten the bifocals now sadly necessary to see both the score and the conductor. The welcome presence of a soothing glass of wine on hand to help warm the throat and ease through the higher notes.. and the chance to go over the recording to catch up a lost session.

Although somehow, despite the intervening technology, playing the stream at a later date is not the same. The knowledge that everyone is singing, in their homes around the world, all together at the same time, still creates a real sense of a shared experience even in isolation.   

How quickly all of this came about! Whilst politicians and businesses floundered, within the very first few days of lockdown I had been invited by colleagues from all around the world to join in a sudden surge of online groups dedicated to drinking, conversing and singing. It was an immediate response: even as we were drawing up leaflets for the village on where to find help, organizing resources to fetch and distribute medicines and linking up volunteers to look after neighbours, people were setting up virtual choirs.

If this teaches us anything, it is that singing together is a deep human need in times of crisis. 

Why should this be? We know from archaeological evidence that the sharing and making of music is hard-wired into what makes us all human. The oldest instruments discovered to date are around 45,000 years old – but these already betray a sophistication that points to music making being far, far older than that and we can assume the act of singing is as ancient as the human voice. The evolutionary changes that made possible our range of tones go back some 500,000 years based on current evidence. Some believe these adaptations could date right back to 1.8 million. 

The role of music in evolution is still one of the great discussions between archaeologists of prehistory. Some suggest that music making set our branch of the human family apart from our otherwise more sophisticated and physically stronger Neanderthal cousins and contributed to our success as a species, binding our ancestors together as a community and allowing them to survive. Others point to ‘motherese’, the sing-song pre-language communication between mother and baby as an essential adaptation: unlike apes, new-born human babies cannot cling to their mothers and so the sound of the voice is what identifies and comforts. From our earliest days the very first sounds we come to recognize and treasure are those of song.

Whatever is the reality, music – and especially singing – is where we turn to be together and virtual choirs are a welcome opportunity to let rip, if only from the relative comfort of your own shed and without worrying about the neighbours.

Of course, humans are not alone in music making. Many other species sing – and over the past weeks with the traffic stilled the village is awash with the lovely sounds of birdsong. But – unlike our aforementioned altos – for all the beauty of their calls, I’m not convinced that birds smile when they sing.